Saturday, October 1

Female facial hair is not uncommon. What happens when we make it visible? | Bastian Fox Phelan


It is not uncommon for women to have facial hair. It is uncommon for women to have visible facial hair.

“Excessive” hair on a woman’s face has a name: hirsutism. Often, but not always, it is linked to polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), an endocrine disorder experienced by one in five women and female-assigned people of reproductive age.

Female facial hair is usually understood in two ways. The first is through a cosmetic lens, when facial hair is removed for aesthetic reasons. The other kind pathologises facial hair as a symptom of a disorder. Both of these perspectives are by a society which encourages individuals to disavow the aspects of ourselves that are motivated too close to the perceived boundary between men and women.

I want to tell another story: one that explores the possibility of not removing facial hair. Most people wouldn’t know what that would look like, because they’ve never seen it – in their own lives, or in the lives of others.

Twelve years ago when I stopped removing my facial hair, it was because I wanted to find an alternative to the endless cycle of hair removal, and the need to silently enact my daily ritual of disappearance. I had been diagnosed with PCOS, but did not agree with the medical view that I suffered from “unwanted” hirsutism. Since high school, the “unwanted” aspect of my existence was not the hair itself, it was the negative attention I received.

Female facial hair challenges ideas about bodies and their boundaries. It’s not just a cosmetic or a medical issue – it is an issue of gender, because it pushes at binary gender norms. Some people find this confronting; their reactions speak volumes about their discomfort. I’ve been bullied, mocked, harassed on the street, and photographed without my permission. Sometimes the looks I received were ones of innocent curiosity, but often there was a cold, hard edge to the way people stared at me. In their eyes, I was no longer a “who” but an “it”, a thing. These experiences left me feeling as though my humanity did not matter.

My decision to keep my facial hair led me to uncharted territory. I didn’t know anyone quite like me, though I was sure I was not alone. My beard is questionable, and it presents a series of questions. Am I a woman with excess, male-like hair which must be erased so I fit within the box labeled “female”? Or does my femaleness make the hair, by extension, an aspect of female embodiment.

I worried that my between-ness would isolate me. How would I present this body, so that my understanding of it was readable? How would I live in this body, if it could not easily be read and understood by others? Could I be something else – someone between the binaries: fluid, uncategorisable?

Judith Butler, a gender theorist argues that binary gender norms form, in part, “the conditions of intelligibility … by which the human emerges, by which the human is recognised.” I didn’t want to be “normal”, but I did want to be recognized as a person. I wanted to be loved, to feel comfortable in my skin, and to live my life free from stigma. For this, it was important to communicate something of my inner life, my personal experiences.

‘There are more stories waiting to be told’: How To Be Between is out now. Photograph: Giramondo

When I started writing my memoir, How to Be Between, I wondered how I would present a narrative of female facial hair when it had barely emerged as a possibility. How could I order the events of my life as a narrative – beginning, middle and end, or some other arrangement – ​​when I was still living it, still in the midst of an attempt at understanding?

Writing, as it turned out, was not the product of deeper insight or maturity; it was the way I came into self-knowledge. It was how I created space for my voice to exist. My book is not an answer to a question about gender, or a set of instructions for how to make a life between the binaries more livable – it is a map of all the questions I asked myself about bodies, identity, self-worth and belonging . It is a way to say: Yo soy.

Many lives are lived between binaries of one kind or another – who hasn’t experienced the pain of feeling like you don’t fully belong, or that parts of you must be hidden in order to get along with others?

If people think women don’t, or can’t, or shouldn’t have facial hair, How to Be Between says: we exist, and there are more stories waiting to be told. When these stories are told, female facial hair will have more than one name.


www.theguardian.com

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